An Emerging Crisis of Undiagnosed Diseases and Delayed Treatment
As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are beginning to see some of the longer-term impacts of the virus on our health care system. COVID-19 has impacted the access to and delivery of routine care for millions across the country. When it comes to diagnostic tests and services, a preliminary Braid Forbes Health Research analysis of the 2020 Medicare Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule (CLFS) utilization data indicates alarming declines for routine screenings and chronic disease testing during the first year of the pandemic.
Findings from this analysis reveal that clinical lab test utilization overall fell by nearly 18% from 2019 to 2020, even when accounting for the large volume of COVID-19 tests that were conducted in 2020. What’s more, utilization of critical diagnostic tools often used for routine screenings, such as chemistry panels, fell by 22% in that same time period.
The impact of this decline for patients with common chronic conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes can be severe. The Braid Forbes analysis shows that there was a 31% drop in cancer testing on average across key tests conducted in 2020 as compared to 2019. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) has also observed significant declines in test volumes, finding that the total number of NBCCEDP-funded breast and cervical cancer screening tests declined by 87% and 84%, respectively, during April 2020 compared with the previous 5-year averages for that month. Recent data from the American Association for Cancer Research supports these findings as well, reporting that from January to July of 2020, the pandemic led to nearly 10 million missed cancer screenings.
This decline in testing can have serious consequences for seniors who rely on lab tests to diagnose, monitor and treat chronic diseases. Left unchecked, many of these diseases can progress from manageable chronic conditions to life changing illnesses. In fact, the National Cancer Institute now predicts that there will be almost 10,000 excess deaths over the next decade from breast and colorectal cancer alone due to pandemic-related delays in patient diagnosis and treatment.
While we remain committed to doing our part to end the pandemic and provide the diagnostic tools necessary to detect and monitor the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we must not forget the importance of routine screenings and testing for diagnosis, treatment and management medical conditions. Medical professionals, policymakers and advocates must work together to raise awareness of this downward trend to ensure that seniors do not face additional obstacles in better managing their health care.